Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

China Hang-up Relaunch

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
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For those of you who didn’t know I co-host a podcast, hey there, I co-host a podcast. It’s called China Hang-up and it focuses on a lot of the same Chinese sociopolitical and economic themes I cover on this blog. Just wanted to announce that we’ve moved to a new home at Project Pengyou.

Since I first announced the podcast here in 2012, it’s morphed into more of a round-table discussion on issues of interest to young China watchers. Our inaugural episode with Project Pengyou looks at one of my favorite topics: the political mindset of Chinese youth today. I’ve said before that it would be a fool’s errand to try and gauge something like this among such a large diverse population, so naturally we’ve stepped up to take on that errand. Helping us do so is someone far less foolish than ourselves: Beijing-based post-80s journalist Helen Gao. We look at how the political education system has changed since Tiananmen and whether an apparent uptick in youth-led demonstrations in recent years indicates the stirrings of a political re-awakening.

For anyone in Beijing, we’re having a re-launch party to celebrate the new partnership this coming Sunday evening at 4corners. We’re hoping it’ll be a good chance for China hands – young and old – from around the city to rub elbows over drinks. Hope to see some of you there.

China Hangup Party Flyer Link (if the picture doesn’t show up)

On separate note, I’m knee-deep in the later stages of a project I’ve been working on for the past year-and-a-half, which is why updates here have been (and will likely continue to be) sparse. But we still plan to put out a podcast every two weeks, so I hope you’ll check that out instead.

On Xia Yeliang…

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Note: This post is in regards to an article I published in The Atlantic on October 22 about dismissed Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang. After receiving excessive scorn, I wrote this post a few days later, but ultimately decided it was too long-winded and canned it after I was invited on Sinica to discuss the issue. However, even more than a month later, people continue to misrepresent what I actually wrote and said. Given the gravity of the case, I decided to go ahead and publish it (with a few tweaks). Apologies for the long-windedness…

One thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing about China is that people love simple narratives. In fact, they often demand them. Things are black vs. white, good vs. evil or a brave freedom-fighting David taking on a wholly-despicable Goliath. So if you introduce a little gray, the white camp sees you as representing everything they hate about the black, and vice-versa.

Several years ago at the university I taught at in Nanjing, there was an English professor (a Chinese woman) who would constantly use her classes to aggressively proselytize Christianity to the point that she’d sometimes stand at the podium and tell students they were hell-bound if they didn’t embrace Jesus. Over the years, there were floods of student complaints about her. The school warned her repeatedly, whereupon she’d cool down for a bit, and then quickly return to her old habits. Eventually, she was fired.

But why? This teacher had some fans (many of whom were Christian themselves). There was another, better-connected teacher in the department who did more-or-less the same thing, but she kept her job; whereas the teacher who was fired wasn’t well-liked by her colleagues. And if she’d just as aggressively preached atheism in class, I find it highly unlikely she would have been dismissed in the end. So what did her in? Was it the student complaints, her Christian faith, national politics, office politics, or more likely, some combination of all these things?

I can’t say for sure, but I think it would be a gross over-simplification to yell “religious persecution!” and call it a day. However, that’s exactly what some people on campus did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a similar thing play out with the case of Xia Yeliang – the Peking University (PKU) economics professor and political dissident who was recently dismissed from his post.

Most people (myself included) initially assumed this was a clear case of political persecution. Given all the very real political persecution happening throughout this country, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. A few weeks before the dismissal, I had even asked the head of a Sino-foreign joint venture college in Shanghai how foreign schools could justify “making a deal with the devil” when there are cases like Xia’s.

But then a few days before Xia was officially terminated, I was chatting with a friend studying at PKU. When I mentioned Xia, she said, “Actually, a lot of students at the school are upset with the way the media’s been covering that story.” She said that he was exceptionally unpopular because of his terrible teaching.

Intrigued, I thought I’d follow up on the story and see if it led anywhere. I figured I’d find some fans and some critics, and then pit them against each other in an article. Unfortunately, that’s not what I found.

When I was seeking out students of Xia’s, there were a few types of people I wanted to avoid. Obviously, I didn’t want anyone arranged through Xia himself or PKU. I also didn’t want to cherry-pick commenters on Weibo who, for whatever reason, had self-selected themselves to speak out on the issue. I tend to avoid Weibo and online forums like the plague when reporting – too many people with disingenuous motives. For the same reason, I sure as hell wasn’t going to quote anything or anyone dredged up online where I couldn’t verify that the person was actually a PKU student who had taken Xia’s class. I also didn’t really want to spend time trying to find current students. Xia had known since the beginning of summer that his job was in danger and his dismissal vote was coming up. If it were me, I’d dramatically alter my teaching methods this semester.

I wanted to choose random people who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion and contact them out of the blue. So starting with some contacts I had from PKU (none of whom were employees, Communist Youth League members or anyone with a vested interest or political axe to grind) I started making some calls and sending out queries to try and track down Xia’s students. The secondhand sources I muddled through were relating similar accounts that Xia was widely disliked. Eventually, I landed on four students who had actually taken his classes across several years.

I contacted them out of the blue and separately from one another. Had they started listing the exact same bullet points and buzzwords, I would have been suspicious. However, that wasn’t the case. They all had their own complaints, but there were some consistent themes: that Xia was boastful, dogmatic and preachy in his political beliefs (which he argued incoherently), that he was awful at teaching the subject matter, and that he would spend huge tracts of class time on completely irrelevant topics.

As I was wrapping up the story, PKU came out with a statement (here’s a later English translation) which more-or-less seemed in line with what the students had already told me (in terms of the specific complaints; nobody’s quite sure what’s up with the procedures used to oust Xia).

Had I found a single student that said a positive (or even neutral) word, I would have quoted them in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this, and I wasn’t about to “balance” out the students I’d methodically sought out in order to avoid bias by quoting an unverifiable and easily manipulated source found through far less methodical means.

I don’t doubt Xia has fans out there though. I can’t think of anyone in history who’s had a 100 percent disapproval rating. But since I didn’t find any of them, I decided I would still present the segment of the student population that felt their voices were being ignored (a segment that seemed pretty large) and then give plenty of room for Xia to respond (but it seems a lot of people missed the half of the article where I laid out Xia’s side of the story).

In the end, I was only able to convince one of the students to use her (English) name in the article. This is something I wrestled with. No journalist likes to use anonymous sources – especially in a situation where they’re criticizing someone else. But having interviewed scores of Chinese students before, I knew that – even on completely benign stories – insistence on anonymity isn’t unusual. Whereas in the West, people are instinctively excited by the prospect of seeing their name in the paper, in China it’s often the opposite – especially among educated people who are well-aware of the country they’re living in (Helen Gao recently did a great piece exploring this). I considered myself lucky that the students even proceeded to talk to me when I said I was a reporter.

This case was extremely politically charged, but the students were more worried about being indicted by the greater public outside of PKU, which was firmly in Xia’s favor. They worried about being labeled wumaodang “50-centers” or CCP-stooges (labels I’ve unsurprisingly been given several times since). So I weighed the gravity of the case, the students’ reasons for wanting anonymity, Xia’s stature as a public figure and the fact that numerous people independently told me similar things. After weighing these things, I decided the story was much better off being told than shelved.

Some have dismissed what I found, saying it was “just a handful of students” and can’t be representative. I agree that it’s not at all on par with a comprehensive scientific survey, but I don’t think it’s negligible either. When two people corroborate the same things, maybe it’s a coincidence; three, a big coincidence. But when you have four people contacted randomly and separately without forewarning corroborating the same things, then that’s enough to make me comfortable that they represent a fairly sizeable group.

This is not the type of article a journalist gets excited about publishing. David vs. Goliath stories are straight-forward and a slam dunk in terms of public reactions. When you report that David might be flawed, however, many people don’t take very kindly to it. I knew I’d get backlash, and that publishing this story would bring me nothing but headaches. But when you find a story like this, you do a great disservice by sitting on it. I knew it would be a lonely few days, but I was more than confident in my reporting. I expected that eventually others would come out and confirm the same things I did, which is indeed what ended up happening (and here and here).

Still, even weeks later, the backlash continues to trickle in – some fair, some absolutely absurd.

The most frequent criticism I’ve gotten goes along the lines of “How can you rule out politics with all the other political repression going on in the country and all the other terrible teachers who are never fired?!” As it turns out, I never did rule out politics. But again, people like latching on to black and white views.

The debate after my article was framed as “Xia Yeliang: bad teacher or victim of politics?” Of course, that’s a false contradiction. There are plenty of possible scenarios involving varying degrees of both of those things. There are indeed countless terrible teachers that are never fired in China, but there are also outspoken dissidents that aren’t fired. Nobody knows for sure why Xia was dismissed though except for his superiors. You can’t rule out politics as a factor or definitively say it was the only factor.

You also shouldn’t ignore aspects of this case just because they complicate the nice neat David vs. Goliath narrative. Academic freedom is an important cause– one that I’ve written on many times – but letting an incomplete narrative prevail doesn’t help that cause; quite the opposite in fact.

Another criticism that I’ve received goes along the lines of “Yes, students are saying these things, but this is China. They’re either brainwashed or being instructed on what to say.” Another variation of this criticism involves the fact that I used to write for Global Times (a newspaper I quit writing for in disgust over two years ago and have written critically of many times since).

According to a group of surprisingly influential professors in the U.S., this is all some conspiracy wherein students were instructed on what to say and, being the government stooge that I am, I gleefully went along with the ruse (never mind that the majority of what I’ve written in the past is critical of the Chinese government – in Global Times, this blog, several Western media outlets and the newspaper I worked at for 18 months that’s nearly been shut down by the government several times).

If it’s easier for you to believe in a massive conspiracy than it is to believe in the possibility that there are real complaints about Xia’s teaching, then fine. I learned long ago not to waste time trying to sway conspiracy theorists.

Were the students told what to say though? Given the way I contacted them (and the other reports that have come out since mine) that would have to involve the university sending out unique instructions to thousands of different students going back seven years – many of whom aren’t even at the school anymore – without the instructions being leaked. If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you read what happened when this obscure Chinese high school tried that route.

Are the students just brainwashed nationalists taught to hate people like Xia? I suppose I can’t definitively rule that out except to say I bore this possibility in mind while interviewing, and the students I spoke to certainly came off as very open-minded and intelligent.

The students all told me they’re happy (or at least tolerant) to see liberal politics discussed in the classroom in general. Two of them said they were huge fans of He Weifang, a PKU law professor and signatory to Charter 08 who’s been aggressively critical of the government in the classroom.

I appreciate all the people who emailed to inform me that China is under a Communist dictatorship (who knew?), to tell me what Chinese universities are REALLY like, and to explain that I was duped into writing this piece. But to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.

While plenty do ride the herd mentality, there are A LOT of independent individualists out there today that wouldn’t think twice about speaking out against injustice if they saw it. Again, see what happened at this much lesser school when administrators pushed students to fall in line. And let’s not forget about the college students across the country that uploaded pictures of themselves with their faces shown to support Southern Weekend in the name of free speech and democracy last January.

Also, if you’re going to believe the “brainwashed” angle, you have to believe that Valentina Luo, a former researcher for The Telegraph and AFP, is also brainwashed (or in on the massive conspiracy with me).

Some have said since Xia has been branded a political pariah, students who support him wouldn’t dare speak out now; so it’s useless to try and get balanced comment on his teaching from student interviews. This seems like a big cop out to me – one that conveniently allows people to dismiss information that challenges their views. Why not try to randomly contact multiple students out of the blue and see what they say? I know that in the internet era, which allows people to simply quote from Weibo and “report” in their pajamas, actually speaking to people has become a novel concept. But catching them off guard is the best way to get their true feelings. So if they really loved Xia, perhaps they’d say so. See if they’ll even say something supportive anonymously. Heck, even if they hang up the phone, that would tell you something.

Tracking these people down takes effort though – a lot more effort than it takes to track down Xia Yeliang. But if people wanted to challenge what I and other reporters have found, this seems like the best way to do so.

Still, the debate goes on…which it should. There are many unanswered questions. There are ideological politics, office politics, and at Chinese state-run institutions, often a very blurry line between the two. I don’t doubt for one second that there are political components to Xia’s story. As I addressed in my article, Xia sees some big irregularities in the university’s position and the dismissal procedures, which need to be clarified.

Skepticism is good. I absolutely welcome RATIONAL skepticism of my piece and my work in general. But in the absence of any concrete evidence, skepticism should be divvied out to all sides. People who are skeptical of my piece should ask themselves honestly if they applied that same skepticism to earlier reports that sourced nobody other than Xia himself.

People (especially those not actually in China) should also remember that even though the country has scarcely changed politically in the past few years, it’s changed by leaps and bounds socially.Things can get more complicated than we’re able to fully comprehend. This government does indeed give us plenty of clear cut black and white, good vs. evil stories. So it makes it all the easier to miss the complications when things aren’t so simple. The story I did is certainly a complication I would have missed had it not been for a random conversation I had with a PKU student.

That conversation allowed me to realize that my initial knee-jerk bias meant I wasn’t as critical of the prevailing narrative as I should have been. When a fair number of people who had firsthand experience with Xia challenged my assumptions, I REPORTED what they said (which is quite different than ENDORSING what they said). You can make your own judgments about why they said it or if it warrants a dismissal. I expected to get quite a bit of heat for this piece, but at the end of the day, self-respecting reporters can’t sit on stories just because they don’t like their implications. I believe I did this story fairly and as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, so I stand by it without regrets.

I assume that most readers of this blog also follow ChinaGeeks and its founder Charlie Custer, but in case there are any of you who don’t, you need to watch the documentary he just released online about the tens of thousands of children that get kidnapped and trafficked in China each year:

[Link if the embed doesn't work]

The film follows three families, each of which lost their children to very different kinds of traffickers. Many might be familiar with the situation of the first family depicted, whose male toddler was stolen and presumably sold to a new family. But the second and third families in the film, who lost an adolescent girl and boy respectively, will send a chill down your spine. In all likelihood, the girl was sold into a life of forced begging or prostitution and the boy into slave labor. At best the authorities in these stories are lazy and incompetent. At worst they actively protect and profit from the trafficking rings.

The film’s title “Living with Dead Hearts” – which was coined by the mother of the adolescent girl – perfectly captures what the families go through. Having no idea what became of their children, and lacking even the closure that learning of their death might provide, the families have no choice but to spend every waking moment and every penny they have on the search for their child – a search that will almost certainly yield nothing but financial and emotional ruin.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in China will never be able to see this film, which is part of what makes this tragedy so pervasive. But this is also why it’s so important for the rest of the world to see it. It isn’t easy to watch and there’s no happy ending. The dark reality of the issue doesn’t warrant a happy ending. But I hope everyone will force themselves to watch and share it with others.

Over the past two weeks, it’s been discovered that two separate foreign pedophiles – a Brit in Beijing and an American in Nanjing – were working in Chinese schools with children. I’ve been waiting to comment on this story to see how it panned out and whether it would blow up in the Chinese press.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t. Weibo was only returning a few hundred results for “Neil Robinson” (the British pedophile). A few Chinese

Wesley Lowe and Neil Robinson

Wesley Lowe and Neil Robinson

outlets reported it – mostly using Xinhua copy – and TV reports appeared to stay very brief, sticking just to the facts and forgoing much commentary.

Compare that to about a year ago when a British man appeared on video to be sexually assaulting a woman in Beijing and, in a separate incident, a Russian cellist had the audacity to put his feet up on the seat in front of him on the train. These two incidents caused a media/Weibo uproar and were the talk of China for a few weeks. Many believe they even precipitated a 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing that followed soon after.

So why did these two events call people to arms and create a xenophobic shitstorm, yet people don’t seem especially bothered now by two cases of verifiable foreign sexual predators infiltrating Chinese schools?

I wondered the same thing back in October when there was another cluster of bad laowai that, on the surface, seemed to be much worse than those that had preceded the 100-day crackdown. There was a drunk Russian who rampaged through Beijing, an American who allegedly raped a 16-year-old Chinese girl in Shenzhen, and a Frenchman who attacked random people in Guilin. Again, very little uproar compared to the British rapist and Russian cellist. Why?

I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but as Apple can now tell you, highly-coordinated media/internet campaigns aimed at riling up anger at a foreign target can, and most certainly do, happen in China.

Anyone in the media can tell you that how much play a certain story receives depends on a lot of factors, many of which are totally random (who happens to see and retweet it, what else is happening in the news, what angle the story is initialy covered from, etc.). So it is possible that, for whatever reason, these pedophiles and the bad laowai cluster in October simply failed to reach that critical mass needed to get wide coverage – a critical mass that the British rapist/Russian cellist somehow managed to attain.

But consider what was going on in the news just prior to when the British rapist video went viral in early May last year. The fallout over Chen Guangcheng’s escape was still going on, and that had come right on the heels of Bo Xilai’s sensational purging – both events that shook the Communist Party hard. There was a lot of talk about how these incidents might disrupt the upcoming power handover. It was a period where a bit of outwardly-directed nationalism would be very convenient.

When the British rapist video came out, it was heavily promoted on major video sharing sites. Then when the Russian cellist video was released, the two events were held up together across many different outlets with an “arrogant laowai” angle. Beijing Morning Post even seemed to believe the Russian cellist warranted front page coverage.

Maybe media were directed to sensationalize these things, or more likely, they were simply allowed to pounce on a topic guaranteed to generate good ratings. I’ve written before on how we probably have censorship to thank for media xenophobia not being as bad as it could be in China. To make a contrast, South Korea last year gave us the much derided “exposé” entitled “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners.” Then back in 2007, when a single foreign pedophile was discovered to have taught in Korea, there was a media uproar and soon after the country tightened its visa policy.

In China we now have not one, but TWO foreign pedophiles. That constitutes an epidemic in any country’s media, but the fact that the Chinese press has shown so much restraint and not played the foreign menace card in this case suggests to me that it wasn’t necessarily their choice. Xenophobia is useful for the government in small periodic doses, but it definitely has its negative consequences and can easily get out of hand. At this point in time, there doesn’t seem much to be gained from such an uproar.

In many ways though, I’m disappointed these pedophile stories haven’t received more attention.  Foreign sex offenders coming to teach in China are actually a significant problem. And that problem is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater social epidemic the whole of China faces.

I actually personally knew the Nanjing pedophile involved in the current case when I taught with him a few years ago (I wrote about him here in 2011). When a co-worker discovered he was a sex offender and informed the coordinator of the school, she did nothing for over a week. Only when the co-worker threatened to call the police did she reluctantly fire the man.

The co-worker still ended up tipping off police, who it now appears did absolutely nothing (this was in late 2009 and the pedophile has apparently still been in China the past 3 years).

It may be a bit hasty though to totally blame these authority figures for their reluctance to take action. The concept of pedophilia is largely unknown and willfully ignored in Chinese education, and this has tragic consequences. But the kids I worry about most aren’t the ones in private international schools. They’re the ones in rural Chinese public schools.

Every few years a huge scandal surfaces involving a Chinese teacher sexually abusing his students. In 2005, a teacher raped 26 fourth and fifth graders. In 2009, a Hunan teacher raped 11 students aged 9 to 14. Then just last year, a government official who also taught at a vocational college was arrested after he raped as many as 100 girls – some as young as 11.  You rarely hear about pedophiles in China until they’ve racked up a lot of victims, and that’s pretty telling.

China has the same social stigma attached to sexual abuse that many countries do, which prevents victims and their parents from coming forward. On top of that, China has almost no sexual abuse education for kids or parents, so the concept and frequency of pedophilia isn’t very well understood by the public. It’s totally feasible that even when it’s reported to some kind of school administrator or authority figure, they’re genuinely unsure of what to do. On top of that, in rural areas, many parents leave their kids behind with grandparents while they go out for migrant work, making it even harder to deal with sexual abuse incidents.

But there are also some much more sinister dynamics in play.

The last thing you want to do if you’re a Chinese parent is risk upsetting people who have power over your child’s education. That alone keeps many from pressing the issue. If you do go to the school administration their first inclination is to put a lid on the incident (this is usually what’s found to have happened in the aftermath of these scandals). They’ll pressure you to stay quiet and say they’ll move your child to another teacher or transfer the teacher to another school. Then some hush money seals the deal.

If you’re in a rural area and you go straight to the police, ultimately they’re accountable to the town Party secretary, who may be on cozy terms with the school administration. The last thing he wants is a disruption to “social harmony” or negative attention brought to his town. You’ll probably get the same carrots and sticks there: hush money and pressure to stay quiet, coupled with the implication that your case really has no legal standing anyways. Only if you figure out that other kids have been abused by the same person and you band together with their parents are you likely to ever make the case see the light of day.

These foreign pedophiles probably should have been pounced on harder by the media; not from an angle emphasizing their foreignness, but emphasizing the child abuse epidemic and the conditions that attract creeps like these to China. There are some now calling for mandatory background checks on foreign teachers in China. That’s probably a good start, but that’s just scratching the surface of all that needs to be changed.

Desensitized in China

Posted: November 21, 2012 in Uncategorized
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A few years ago while living in China I went back home to Kansas City for a short trip. One day I was riding in a car with my mother and we passed a child about five years old sitting alone on the sidewalk.

My mom asked if I’d “seen that”. I had, but it didn’t register what she was referring to.

“See what?” I asked.

“That little boy,” she replied. “He was all alone there without his parents.”

“Oh yeah,” I said dismissively.

“We’d better go back and make sure he’s ok,” she said as she pulled onto the next street to turn around.

“K…” I answered, just starting to realize what the big deal was.

By the time we got to the boy, another woman had also pulled over to see what was up. We all walked around with the child looking for his parents until eventually we called the police. An officer showed up within ten minutes and took the boy to the station.

As soon as I saw that the other woman had pulled over, it immediately sank in what I’d just done…or rather, what I’d failed to do, and it made me sick. Had I been alone in the car, I would have kept on driving. I was ashamed because it’s not something I would have done just a few years earlier. China had desensitized me.

Last week five young Guizhou children were found dead in a dumpster from carbon monoxide poisoning after they’d climbed in and burned coal to stay warm. They’d been missing for three weeks after running away from home. Someone apparently even took a picture of them sitting in a public place the day before their deaths, but still, no social safety net caught them in time.

The five children (maybe) via Sina Weibo user @公民李元龙, via Beijing Cream

I wasn’t the least bit surprised. People wrote heartfelt messages of sorrow and disgust online, but I imagine if they’d walked by the kids sitting alone on the street themselves, most would have just kept walking by. It pains me now to say it, but I’ve done it dozens of times myself.

It’s not that people in China are heartless. The sight of children running around alone is just so depressingly common that it’s barely enough to raise an eyebrow. Sometimes they’re child beggars being exploited by a guardian watching from around the corner. Sometimes they’ve just been left to run about by parents who’ve never been warned by the always-harmonious media about China’s epidemic of child kidnappers.

These unaccompanied children are ubiquitous and there’s been very little done to educate society that this isn’t a normal or acceptable thing. Unfortunately, when I entered this society I gradually forgot this myself.

People have been quick to blame the parents, the school principals and local government officials for letting these kids slip through their fingers. Indeed, they all bear some responsibility, but so do all of us who’ve ever seen a child alone and kept walking. Most of all though, responsibility lies with the system that’s allowed us to become desensitized to something that’s clearly very disturbing.

After last week’s “Microcosms” I decided I like the idea of doing a mini-series of articles, so I’m starting another irregular one I’ll add to from time to time portraying “foreigners who ruin it for the rest of us.”

For a brief period of my life I’d rather forget about, I worked at a private English academy in Nanjing. These places have a (frequently deserved) reputation for milking every dime they can out of students and teachers alike, putting profit ahead of any sense of ethics or honesty. These places are also notorious for taking nothing but skin color into consideration when hiring foreign teachers. So naturally, some interesting characters end up there.

When I started, there was another teacher who was single, in his 50’s and so obese that he had trouble walking. He insisted on being called Dr. Lowe (because apparently a Ph.D in trumpet entitles you to that prefix). Of course I wondered what the hell he was doing teaching English in China. He clearly didn’t come to enjoy the scenery. But I didn’t think too much of it. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing people in China with that exact description and have learned not to pass judgment. A lot of them have just struck out with women or careers back home, but there are actually a fair amount that genuinely have a (non-sexual) interest in China.

However, another teacher who had been working with the man for several months sensed something was up by the way he interacted with some of the younger students. He ran a search on the US national sex offender registry and sure enough:

In retrospect I'm not sure how I ever missed it.

The good doctor had been convicted in three states of sex crimes against minors and child pornography. The teacher who discovered this immediately alerted the boss – who quickly sprang into action. And by that I mean she did nothing for over a week until that teacher threatened to inform the police.

When I first came to China a foreign friend told me a saying that floats around in the expat community: “Foreigners who move to China are either looking for something or running away from something.” I think we can safely assume Dr. Lowe was doing both.  He taught kids as young as seven at the school, and even worse, tutored several children unsupervised in his home – which explicitly violates parole rules for sex offenders.

Places like China and Southeast Asia are very enticing for people like this. They can easily get teaching jobs with no questions asked and escape the stigma of their home countries where they’re publically announced as sex offenders. But most disturbing, China offers a much safer venue to commit their crimes. In most cases, if a child is abused, their family doesn’t dare tell anyone about it. The stigma of sexual abuse leads many to see the kids as “damaged goods.” And even if the family does want to go public with an incident, hush agreements with cash payment are often made to keep families and media quiet.

Besides the obvious heinousness of the crimes themselves, what bothers me is that in the eyes of most Chinese a foreigner is a walking embodiment of his country, or of “foreigners” in general. I take my coat off, and it’s “Ah, I think Americans must like the cold,” according to a former student.

So when there’s a disproportionate number of these creeps coming into the country, they strongly reinforce the idea that we westerners are all depraved sexual deviants. I think it’s only a matter of time before the Chinese media latches onto a case like Dr. Lowe’s and creates a nationalistic shit storm like what happened in South Korea in 2007.

And what’s the solution? Private schools can’t be trusted to weed out these people and miss getting their hands on a genuine vanilla face. So basically that leaves background checks for foreigners when getting their visas like South Korea started shortly after its 2007 incident. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s another layer of bureaucracy when trying to get something done in China.

So Dr. Lowe, that’s why you’re one of the foreigners who ruin it for the rest of us.

Each day this week I’m posting a different story from the university I taught at in China; which I often felt was a kind of microcosm of the country as a whole. It’s hard to say to what extent the communist system has shaped Chinese culture from the top-down and what pre-existing Chinese values lent to the rise of authoritarianism from the bottom. I feel these stories each demonstrate a trend in Chinese culture that can be felt at many different levels. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s politics, imbedded values or something else that enabled these stories.

Part 4: The Slackers

It’s easy to be impressed by Chinese students when you first come to China. The amount of dedication some of them put into their studies at the expense of their social life, and even health, has a way of putting you to shame. But then there are people like Jackson who make you second-guess a lot of the “hard-working Chinese” stereotypes.

Jackson was one of my undergraduates and it didn’t take me long to wonder just what the hell he was doing majoring in English. I couldn’t understand a word he said and his writing assignments looked like he’d randomly plucked words from the dictionary and splattered them across the page. He was a stark contrast to every other student in the class.

But then the others brought me up to speed. Jackson’s father was a famous rocket professor at the university and his mother was the finance president of the school hospital. And by astonishing coincidence, Jackson had been admitted to the university in spite of his dismal entrance exam performance.

But the astonishing coincidences didn’t stop with his admission. When all the students had to pass a listening comprehension test to move on to their junior year, Jackson was conspicuously absent – yet still ended up with a passing score. When it came time to write his final thesis, a teacher was dispatched to complete it for him. And he was never bothered to defend it like the other students. Upon graduation he went to get his Master’s degree in an English program in Sweden. How he managed that and how he fared when he arrived, I can only imagine.

All of Jackson’s classmates knew he was a special case and generally accepted it as a fact of life. But that’s not to say they couldn’t buy some of the opportunities he had. During their senior year everyone took the TEM-8, a certification test for English majors that’s usually needed to get a teaching job, and generally very helpful for other careers.

When the scores came out, several failed while some of the worst students had gotten the highest scores. A friend told me that they’d each bought the answer key beforehand for 3,000 yuan ($470) – a sum of money far out of reach for most.

I remembered a few months earlier when a graduate student was straddling his 6th story window threating to jump. His professor was holding his degree ransom – refusing to let him graduate until he did more research and completed a paper in the professor’s name. The student felt the threat of suicide was the only way to get the attention needed to get his rightful diploma.

So I was furious when weighing this against what my cheating students had done – ensuring that when recruiters came the following month they’d take the jobs away from the more qualified (albeit less affluent and dishonest) people. On my Renren (Chinese Facebook) account, I was friends with most of  those I taught. I wrote a status update saying, “It seems many students cheated on their TEM-8. It also seems the university doesn’t plan to do anything about it. Disgraceful.”

The comment caused a sensation in the dorms. Apparently I had broken a taboo that everyone knew about, but wouldn’t dare mention in such a public forum. Later that night I got an email from one of my students:

“Thank you for your support for those students who have failed the TEM-8 because of others cheating. In fact, I am so miserable that there are only 2 scores I need to get the certificate. But many students like me can do nothing but to accept the reality and blame ourselves for the fate…”

The following year those who failed were allowed to take the test one more time. I later found out that that girl, and most others, saved up and bought the answers the second time around.

Each day this week I’m posting a different story from the university I taught at in China; which I often felt was a kind of microcosm of the country as a whole. It’s hard to say to what extent the communist system has shaped Chinese culture from the top-down and what pre-existing Chinese values lent to the rise of authoritarianism from the bottom. I feel these stories each demonstrate a trend in Chinese culture that can be felt at many different levels. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s politics, imbedded values or something else that enabled these stories.

Part 3: The Inspection

As soon as I arrived at the university in August I noticed the construction. Pretty typical in China, but this had a sense of urgency to it. Buildings were getting facelifts and an elaborate obstacle course was being built in the center of campus for exercise. One of the Chinese teachers told me that each university undergoes an inspection every five years to keep its accreditation and decide its national ranking. Our university would be having its inspection in November and things would be “busy” until then.

“That seems kind of stupid,” I said to the teacher. “They warn the school this far in advance about the inspection?”

“Yes,” she said. “It is quite stupid.”

As she predicted, the impending inspection made campus “busy” in that it was completely non-conducive to teaching and living. Drilling and jackhammers constantly interrupted class. In the week before the inspection the teachers were all told we needed to have all our lesson plans for the whole semester written out and kept with us in case inspectors asked for it.

All the students were given staggered schedules of when they would be required to study in the library – giving the impression of dedicated learning. I escaped the brunt of the new rules as a foreign teacher presumably safe from the non-English speaking inspectors. But everyone else was visibly stressed out from the work and instructions being hammered into them.

Finally the big week arrived. I went to pick up my pay at the foreign affairs office, which doubled as a high-end hotel and reception center for guests. As I rode nearer on my bike I could see water spraying three stories high from down the street. Unbeknownst to me the little pond in front was capable of putting on an impressive fountain show. As I got closer I saw several men in suits and pretty girls in traditional qipao dresses lined up at the entrance. As I pulled up, a guard hustled me to park my bike around the corner and get inside. I entered the building just as the black Audis rolled up.

The next morning I saw other impressive fountains around the school that had never been turned on. In my teaching building people were using the elevators, which everyone had previously assumed were broken. When I went to lunch at the cafeteria the food was wonderful and came in portions much larger than usual. Then that evening I walked by a forest in the middle of campus where students go to make out because of the complete darkness. But that night it was fully illuminated by colorful lights I had never realized existed. If the inspectors had actually walked inconspicuously amongst the students they would have clearly noticed something was up from everyone pointing in awe at all the new pretty things.

But it’s unlikely the inspectors ever got that chance. From what I heard, it was one banquet after another with the actual inspection happening in a suited entourage that could be seen coming a mile away.

Someone from a nearby university told me that when they underwent their check, the inspectors were all given expensive laptops to help them do their work – which they were welcome to keep afterwards. I don’t know whether anything like that happened during our inspection. I asked a Chinese friend at the school if he thought they were getting bribes and he looked at me like I was stupid. “Of course,” he said half-jokingly. “That’s why I hope to have that job some day.”

For the rest of the week the campus felt like someone had died. Students and teachers walked from point A to point B trying to follow their scripts. As soon as the inspectors left, the school breathed a collective sigh of relief. The fountains and elevators were turned off and the amorous young couples got their privacy back in hookup forest. I met one of my Chinese teacher friends who’d spent some time abroad. She gave me a big smile and exclaimed, “We’re free!”

“What was the point of that?” I asked. “Doesn’t everyone realize what a farce the whole thing is?”

“We know,” she said laughing, fully aware of how absurd it seemed to me. “But we just do it and forget about it. We don’t have to worry about it for five more years now.”